The Fabulous Bakersfield Boy

Small festivals often become traps for cinematic love letters from filmmakers to family members with stories of “achievement” they wrongly believe deserve audiences beyond the folks who show up for Thanksgiving dinner.

Thankfully, Billy Mize & the Bakersfield Sound is not one of those films. Director William J. Saunders rightly credits his 85-year-old grandfather with being among the country-music pioneers who predate the “Bakersfield Sound” most often credited to Mize's onetime sideman Buck Owens.

It's an eye-opening, warts-and-all portrait of the singer/guitarist/songwriter who possessed a sweet, sweet voice but could never extend his fame beyond Southern California as a musician or host of a string of Bakersfield and Los Angeles television shows in the 1950s and '60s that were in the same vein as American Bandstand and The Johnny Cash Show.

Cash was among the touring country artists who always made a point to come through the studios where Mize hosted shows, as did three surviving stars who appear as talking heads in the documentary: Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price. Many praise Mize for giving them their starts, which we witness among the impressive array of archival footage Saunders digs up.

The picture builds to the family-first stance that kept Mize from leaving SoCal, the heart-breaking losses that tore his beloved family apart, the medical issues that kept him off the stage and a surprise, intimate, tear-inducing scene near the end.

Saunders creating a film that's not just a glorified home movie should surprise no one who knows his résumé, which includes directing and editing documentaries for HBO, FOX, ABC, CBS, ESPN, NFL Network and the BBC (winning an Emmy for his feature-length NFL Films documentary Big Charlie's), as well as directing and co-writing the 2011 feature Sweet Little Lies, about a young girl's quest to find her father.

He finds his grandfather in Billy Mize & the Bakersfield Sound, and we're all the better for it.

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